Gargano National Park
The ''seaside'' beech forests
A glacial refuge of the Beech Tree
13 different beech forest orchids
The rare Middle Spotted and White-backed Woodpecker
Gargano National Park protects a promontory covered with coastal forests of pines and holm oaks and with almond, orange, and olive cultivation. The flat and sandy coast in the north gradually becomes precipitous, with steep calcareous coastal cliffs overlooking little coves of extremely fine sand, very busy during the summer. In the inland areas, the vegetation of Foresta Umbra dominates the promontory with beech trees and pines: it is the heart of the National Park.
The luxuriant vegetation of Gargano – probably the most thriving in Southern Italy – has drawn the interest of researchers studying plants and forests, for two main reasons: first of all, for its great abundance which makes the promontory easily recognizable from a distance; secondly, because coming down from the north of the Peninsula, it represents the first and complete example of Mediterranean vegetation. In fact, the flora of Gargano includes about 2,300 vascular species, that is over 33 per cent of the Italian vegetal species, making this territory one of the most interesting “floristic districts” of Italy.
Gargano Promontory, stretching out into the South Adriatic Sea for about 60 km, is on average 30 km wide and covers an area of about 210,000 hectares. Its highest summit is Monte Calvo (1,065 m), followed by Monte Nero (1,012 m), and Monte Spigno (1,008 m). Clearly separated from the mountains of the Apennines by the vast plateau of Tavoliere delle Puglie, this unique territory is characterized by a very heterogeneous climate changing according to altitude and exposure: from a Mediterranean climate with very dry summers in the coastal stations (550 mm of annual rainfall) to a Mediterranean climate with significant rainfall during the autumn and the winter in the stations of the elevated inland areas (1,200 mm in Foresta Umbra).
In addition, climate is heavily influenced by exposure, because the cold winter winds coming from the north cause drops in temperatures and significant humidity (moisture in the air), to the extent that the Mediterranean vegetation only covers a narrow strip of land in the northern section of the promontory, while the deciduous forests almost reach the sea level. In the south, forests only grow at higher altitudes, and holm oak forests can be found from 600-700 m above sea level.
The Park protects an outstanding concentration of different habitats: from steep and rocky coasts to the warm and deep narrow valleys of the southern slope, rich in rare and endemic species of plants and animals, to the inland beech forests with their centuries-old specimens and the Mediterranean Aleppo pine forests with trees older than 500 years.
Foresta Umbra is what remains of the primeval and thousand-year forest of Gargano Promontory and it is the most representative environment of its inland areas. Despite the devastation and insane deforestation carried out in the past three centuries, which stripped the forest bare on the hills and mountains of Gargano, Foresta Umbra has preserved an almost intact luxuriant vegetation with a rich variety of tree species, herbaceous and shrub formations. The explanations for the meaning of the name “Foresta Umbra” are lost in time and all of them, even though acceptable, are not sufficiently proven and do not provide a clear interpretation of the name. According to someone, the name Umbra would derive from the ancient tribe of the Umbri (a prehistoric tribe belonging to the Celtic group), who inhabited the forest and carried out raids against the nomadic shepherds living in the more fertile plains of the promontory; according to others, it could derive from “shady place” (the Italian word “ombra” means “shade”).
The National Park includes “Foresta Umbra”, the forest area representing the heart of Gargano Promontory. This forest area covers about 15,000 hectares and comprises the Biogenetic Reserves of Foresta Umbra and Falascone, with the most ancient and interesting beech forests, and the Strict Nature Reserve of Sfilzi, an area of transition between the beech forest and the Turkey oak woodland, born to protect the only mountain spring of Gargano.
The Strict Nature Reserve of Sfilzi develops along the slopes of Valle della Carpinosa, upstream Fonte di Sfilzi, the only perennial spring of Gargano mountain area. It is a very well-preserved stretch of forest where it is possible to observe a very rich vegetation and interesting thermal inversion phenomena: beech trees grow in the cooler valley floor, while at higher altitudes there are Turkey oaks, downy oaks, and – in the most sunlit areas – typical species of the Mediterranean maquis.
However, it was the Biogenetic Reserve of Falascone to be considered for the inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List. This forest represents a very rare example of mixed beech forest, with a great variety of tree species of exceptional size (maples, limes, hornbeams, hollies, and above all yews) that make it one of a kind. Here, beech trees can reach 350 years of age and 45 meters of height (considering that in similar contexts they don’t exceed 250 years of age and 35 meters of height).
The Reserves of Falascone and Foresta Umbra represent the core of the ancient Nemus garganicum quoted by Ovid, Strabo, and Virgil, which in the past used to cover the whole promontory. The story of Foresta Umbra is a confused and distressful sequence of conquests, usurpations, and property transfers by kings or local princes – the Lombards, the Byzantines, the Saracens, the Normans, the Suebi, the Angevins – who snatched one another woodlands, villages, and sanctuaries, plundering everything they could find. The first reliable records date back to the second half of 1500s, when the nobleman Girolamo Grimaldi purchased the vast territory surrounding Monte Sant’Angelo – forest included – from another lord for 30,000 ducats. Family Grimaldi passed down this property for two centuries and a half, until Napoleon’s occupation. At that time, in fear of the abolition of feudalism, lady Maria Grimaldi, princess of Gerace, tried to sell Foresta Umbra to the Municipality of Monte Sant'Angelo.
However, Joachim Murat’s government invalidated the sale for the debts the princess had with the State, and all of her properties were expropriated. With the return of the Bourbons, the estate remained public property and, with the fall of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in 1861, it became public property of the new Kingdom of Italy. According to the liberal spirit prevailing at that time, alienation was almost immediately required. However, for the confused and contradictory nature of measurement and estimate operations and for a series of auctions with no bidders, in March 1866, with law no. 3713, the property was declared inalienable and was transferred to the Forest Management. The area is formed by a wonderful, characteristic Gargano beech forest with an irregular – but not too rough – orography, growing on mature soils with great water holding capacity.
The predominant vegetation of the Reserves Foresta Umbra and Falascone consists of beech high forest with a multilayered and very complex structure, enabling an excellent development of the shrub and herbaceous layers, both extraordinarily rich in species. Here, the Beech Tree is associated with the Common Hornbeam, the European Hop-hornbeam, with maples, limes, elms, ashes, with the Manna Ash and the Yew, and in the shrub layer, with the Butcher’s Broom, the Holly, and the Daphne. In the Reserve of Falascone, there are thousand-year-old yew trees, whose hard wood spared them from axes and saws.
The herbaceous vegetation includes a great number of multicolored species which complete their life cycle during the short spring, before the thick shadow of beech trees can preclude them from the essential access to light. Among the others, an endemic species like the Adriatic Bellflower is worth mentioning.
The Strict Nature Reserve of Sfilzi is dominated by the typical vegetation of the contact area between the Beech Tree and the Turkey Oak. Thanks to the various exposures influencing microclimate, there are several tree species associated with the Beech Tree: the Italian Maple, the Field Maple, the Common Hornbeam, the European Hop-hornbeam, the Turkey Oak, the Sessile Oak, the Holm Oak, the Lime, the Elm, the True Service Tree, the Crab Apple, the Bay Laurel, the Strawberry Tree, and the Terebinth.
The beech forests of Gargano Promontory represent in Italy the beech populations which can be found at the lowest altitudes, in more direct contact with the Mediterranean vegetation, and closest to the shoreline. They are almost all public properties, and belong to “zone 1” of Gargano National Park.
In addition to the above-mentioned features, they are unique in Europe for their magnificence and their high biodiversity, for the extraordinary level of conservation, and because they represent glacial refuge areas for the species in a Mediterranean environment. Here, it is possible to find beech trees exceeding 350 years of age (at similar altitudes, they barely reach 250 years of age) and 45 meters of height (usually they don’t exceed 35 meters). Moreover, the Reserve of Falascone represents a very rare example of mixed beech forest, with a great variety of tree species of exceptional size (maples, limes, hornbeams, hollies, and above all yews) that make it one of a kind. It is also home to 13 different species of forest orchids, bearing witness to the floristic richness of the forests.
As far as the wildlife is concerned, the European Roe Deer is worth a mention: this species is object of research, because it is considered autochthonous and genetically different from the rest of the Italian population. The European Wild Cat, the Eurasian Badger, the Beech Marten, the Fox, the Wild Boar, the Edible Dormouse, and a great number of micromammals are also worth mentioning.
The amphibians inhabiting the so-called “Cutini” (natural pools) of Foresta Umbra are the Italian Crested Newt, the Italian Newt, the Common Toad, and the Green Toad. In Foresta Umbra, an important multispecific colony of Chiroptera has been found, including the Lesser Horseshoe Bat, the Greater Horseshoe Bat, and the Mediterranean Horseshoe Bat.
Among birds, we should mention the Song Thrush, the Western Bonelli’s Warbler, the Garden Warbler, the Wood Warbler, the Collared Flycatcher, the Eurasian Bullfinch, the Goldcrest, the Hawfinch, the Western Orphean Warbler, the Coal Tit and, among diurnal birds of prey, the Eurasian Sparrowhawk and the Northern Goshawk. There are also six species of woodpeckers: the Eurasian Wryneck, the Eurasian Green Woodpecker, the Great Spotted Woodpecker, the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, as well as the rare Middle Spotted Woodpecker and the White-backed Woodpecker, associated with the old-growth beech forests of the Central and Southern Apennines.
The Reserves are accessible by car from highway A14 Adriatica, exit Poggio Imperiale-Lesina. Then take the Gargano freeway to Vico del Gargano and follow the directions to Foresta Umbra-Monte Sant'Angelo.
More generally, the National Park is accessible by motorboat, by ferry, and by hydrofoil form the ports of Termoli (all year round), Vieste, Rodi Garganico, Peschici, and Capoiale (June-September). By train, you can reach the railway stations of Termoli, Foggia, and San Severo. By plane, the nearest airports are Bari-Palese and Naples-Capodichino – about 150-200 km far from the various localities of Gargano – offering public transport and car rental services.
Foresta Umbra is crossed by 14 trails created by the former State Forest Service, today Forest Carabinieri, starting from old trails and mule tracks easily accessible on foot and by mountain bike. At each trailhead and at the main intersections, you will find wooden trail signs with the name of the localities where the trail starts and arrives, as well as the estimated hiking time. Along the trail, you can orient yourself thanks to the yellow markings on trees. Out of the several existing trails, two are particularly useful to discover the beech forests inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, as well as the National Park and the Reserves of Falascone and Sfilzi.
1. In the Reserve of Umbra
Nature Trail for disabled persons
- Distance: 500 m
- Elevation: very little
- Estimated hiking time: 30 minutes
- Difficulty level: easy (the dirt and mainly flat trail is also accessible to persons with mobility impairments).
The trail develops around Cutino d'Umbra, the only stretch of water surviving during the summer in Foresta Umbra. It starts from the access on road SP 52 bis "Umbra - mare" and ends where the trail "Cutino d'Umbra - Falascone" starts. This first stretch is provided with specific interpretive panels, also in Braille. The trail is open to the public all year round, and the access is free. If you want to take a longer trail, you can continue along trail "Cutino d'Umbra - Falascone", as well as along other trails developing nearby.
2. In the Reserve of Sfilzi
Trail "Fonte Sfilzi - Casalini"
- Distance: 8 km
- Elevation: about 300 m
- Estimated hiking time: 4 hours
- Difficulty level: challenging (for the position, the natural trail bed, and the significant elevation, it is only accessible to expert hikers).
The trail develops around the State Strict Nature Reserve of Sfilzi. It starts from road SP 144 leading from Vico del Gargano to Monte Sant'Angelo, near Sfilzi mountain lodge. From here, the trail crosses some stretches of natural forests untouched by man and leads to Fonte Sfilzi, the only mountain spring of Gargano. The morphology of the area, the contact between Turkey oak woodlands and beech forests, and the presence of small valleys with a south-north orientation give the opportunity to observe interesting thermal inversion phenomena and the most typical species of the Mediterranean maquis.
Things to do
Gargano National Park preserves a natural heritage worth discovering: to this purpose, it offers several trails with facilities, accessible to everyone. Foresta Umbra is undoubtedly the most renowned place for hiking in Gargano, thanks to its network of trails with facilities: there are trail signs indicating trailhead location, arrival location, and estimated hiking time and, near the trailheads, there are picnic areas. Along the trails, you will find yellow markings on trees and rocks, which will let you dive into a natural dimension without the fear of getting lost. There are 15 marked trails, all with signposts, locality signs, and trail signs. For signs, hiking rest stops, and fences, materials such as wood and sometimes stone are privileged, making the presence of trails much more discreet.
The charms of Foresta Umbra are enriched by the presence of a nature museum and an information point for visitors, located near Villaggio Umbra. The museum offers a mountain bike rental and the chance to purchase books, maps, informative materials, and gadgets. Inside, it is possible to admire a scale model of Gargano Promontory (1:25.000), lithic artifacts proving the ancient presence of man in Gargano, a xylotheque, giant posters of the main flora and fauna species, and a rich collection of animal taxidermy mounts. The Visitor Center is also home to an information point and is surrounded by some theme trails to walk, rest stops and picnic areas with facilities.
There is also a recreation/education area for children, an innovative way to present the forest environment: hopefully, working on feelings and emotions and stimulating curiosity and imagination, it will prepare children for a more informed and efficient environmental education. Here, they have the chance to play safely in the forest and with the forest: among trees, with balls or their favorite toys, or with wooden construction sets; but also, with broken branches, cones, stones, with earth, on fallen trunks, in the small hut recalling the one built by coalmen or on board the small train recalling the ancient decauville track; even with wooden sculptures representing some inhabitants of the forest, which hopefully will arouse some pleasant feelings. The experimental area is constantly revised and improved, also thanks to the advice provided by teachers, educators, and parents.
There are two theme trails: the trail "Fonte Sfilzi-Casalini", developing within the State Strict Nature Reserve of Sfilzi, and the theme trail "La rete Natura 2000” (Natura 2000 Network), developing around "Cutino d'Umbra-Falascone", a depressed area with a waterproof soil, where rainwater forms natural pools called “Cutini”.
Project financed by funds identified under Law No. 77 of 20 February 2006 "Special measures for the protection and fruition of Italian sites of cultural, landscape-related, and natural interest, inscribed on the World Heritage List”, placed under UNESCO protection.